13th April 2013 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of one of the greatest performances from a club in the English league.
It came on a Wednesday night at Anfield where, top of the table Liverpool, took on Nottingham Forest. These two had, had some ding-dong battles over the past 10 years and with Forest still managed by Brian Clough, they were expected to provide stiff opposition once again.
Forest were lying in 4th but with only 7 games to be played they were already 14 points behind Liverpool, who were flying. Forest were certainly no pushovers, they finished 3rd that season, reached the FA Cup Semi-Final, and boasted England internationals such as Stuart Pearce, Des Walker, Neil Webb and Nigel Clough. This was the finest Liverpool team I have ever seen and when you consider the great teams of 1985-86, 1976-77, 1983-84 or 1978-79 they must’ve been good just to match those.
This was a night when it all clicked, although they had been sensational all season. It wouldn’t be until 20th March when they suffered their first defeat in the league, in the Merseyside derby, an incredible 29 games equalling Leeds United’s record. Two weeks later they were beaten 1-2 at Forest. A draw at home to 2nd placed Manchester United left Liverpool with a run of just 1 win in their last 5 games and people were starting to wonder whether they could relinquish their lead. Had they shot their bolt? Would they now crumble?
13th April 1988 was to answer those questions and many more, with an emphatic NO!
That defeat at the City Ground was the first of three games to be played against Nottingham Forest in 11 days. Forest won the first 2-1, then Liverpool won the FA Cup Semi-Final 2-1 at Hillsborough. Now for game number three.
Liverpool were unchanged from the Semi-Final, with Craig Johnston and Jan Molby (who played in the City Ground game) on the bench. Clough made one change with former Everton midfielder, Paul Wilkinson, giving way to Lee Glover. Forest were in good form in the league and were unbeaten in their last 5, winning their last 3.
Liverpool: Grobbelaar; Nicol, Gillespie, Hansen, Ablett; Houghton, McMahon, Spackman; Beardsley, Aldridge, Barnes
Nottingham Forest: Sutton; Chettle, Foster, Walker, Pearce; Crosby, Webb, Wilson; Clough, Rice
Football is such a fluid game with the ball able to travel anywhere on the pitch and players able to do anything with it, other than handle it, that for 11 players to produce the ‘perfect’ performance is very hard to achieve. Each player was on their game that evening, it was almost as if a script had been written beforehand and each player played out their part to absolute perfection. In music, bands will often talk of one or two live performances where the collective ‘muse’ took them to heights rarely seen before or afterwards. Actors will often point to a couple of performances where everything and everyone was completely flawless. In football this night was one of those nights.
In the end Liverpool could’ve won by plenty and if you were to find a criticism you could argue they should’ve scored more. But the goals they did score seemed so effortless that one can ignore the talent and artistry which goes into manoeuvring opponents round the pitch to allow such precision in passing. Much of the play that season had the precision of a top surgeon, and Liverpool always seemed to have far more players than their opponents. There were always so many options.
For me, this was the greatest Liverpool team I have ever seen. It still ranks as the finest club side I have ever seen in English football. But I’ll save all that for another article. Back to the game
Liverpool attacked relentlessly from the start and the crowd were soon in on the act as it became apparent all the stars were in alignment and you couldn’t help but be carried along on a wave of footballing joy.
John Barnes was at his conjuring best, with a shake of the hips and a drop of the shoulder, he would leave defenders for dead. Peter Beardsley was the artist supreme as he dropped deep to allow midfield runners to fill the attacking space, but then he would arrive late with an unerring ability to find the right finish to a passing masterpiece. Then there was John Aldridge, the goalscoring machine who had more than adequately filled the void left by Ian Rush. Who were Forest supposed to mark, with McMahon, Spackman and Houghton all forging from midfield?
Liverpool just created chances at will and only an inspired performance from Steve Sutton in the Forest goal prevented the score from reaching double figures. The home side took until the 18th minute to open the scoring. The confidence within Liverpool’s team was underlined when Hansen intercepted a pass on the halfway line and drove forward, safe in the knowledge there would be defensive cover behind him. He found Ray Houghton, who’d drifted infield from the right and Houghton now ran at the Forest defence with real purpose. As he reached the ‘D’ he played a neat one-two with Barnes, which took out two Forest defenders and Houghton’s momentum also took him past Walker, where he simply slid the ball past Sutton for the opening goal. It was beautiful in its simplicity as if it was purely a training ground routine against cardboard cut-outs. 1-0
Beardsley and Barnes tormented their opponents and combined to create chance after chance. In the 37th minute, Forest were on the attack when Ablett won the ball in the left-back position. He found Beardsley, who’d dropped deep and the Liverpool no. 7, who’d tormented Forest all half, played a telling 30-yard pass ahead of Walker for Aldridge to run onto. As Sutton advanced, Aldridge simply dinked the ball over him for his 23rd goal of the season and gave the home side a 2-0 lead. The swiftness of the attack was stunning. 2-0 it was at half-time and if anyone thought Liverpool were going to ease off in the second half, they were very much mistaken.
58 minutes in and Liverpool had a corner on the left. Barnes took it quickly and played it to Houghton, who carried the ball along the bye-line before pulling it back to Gillespie who was unmarked just outside the 6-yard area. Gillespie fired the ball first time into the roof of the net. Goals came from everywhere in that team, underlined by the fact that Gillespie chipped in with 4 that season. 3-0
Liverpool weren’t finished yet. Spackman picked the ball up in the centre circle and ran at Forest. He waited for Barnes to make his run and then threaded a ball through to him on the left. Steve Chettle managed to stay close to Barnes and had seemed to force him to the corner flag before Barnes simply turned to face him, then calmly nutmegged the full-back to take him completely out of the game. Barnes looked to have lost control of the ball as Webb came sliding in. But as so often happened this was simply a trick of the light, and Barnes skipped past the hapless Forest man into the area, drawing another defender, before sliding the ball back for Beardsley, who was on the edge of the area. Beardsley shot first time into the bottom right corner of the net with enough venom to make sure Sutton couldn’t stop it. 4-0
This was champagne football of the type that the watching crowd would’ve given anything for sky+ and the ability to pause, watch again and take in every minute. But the relentless voracity of the attacks just continued, as the Forest players looked completely drained and thoroughly beaten.
With two minutes to go, Bruce Grobbelaar kicked the ball downfield where Foster dealt with it, finding Chettle at right-back. Chettle tried to find Webb in midfield, but the future Man Utd man made the fatal mistake of taking a touch and he had his pocket well and truly picked by Spackman. Spackman played a one-two with Beardsley, which again took out most of the Forest defence allowing Spackman to run free into the area. He then played the ball square for Aldridge, on the 6-yard box to simply apply the finish. 5-0 to Liverpool. The passing was superb, the finishing clinical but above all it was the movement of the players which was impossible to defend against.
Liverpool were now 11pts clear of Manchester United and still had 2 games in hand. They now had 80pts and as United could only gain a maximum 81pts, they were all but champions. They would go onto to claim their 17th League title 10 days later.
Some people called this the ‘game of the century’, others have it as the greatest game of football they’d ever seen. But it was Tom Finney who was quoted most as he eulogised about what he had just witnessed.
Tom Finney, one of the greatest players to have played in England, declared “I think that was one of the finest exhibitions of football I’ve seen the whole time I’ve played and watched the game. I mean it was tremendous; well deserved…..the skills and the speed the game was played at was absolutely tremendous. I came away thinking I’ve been really entertained, and I’m sure that the spectators here saw an exhibition tonight that will never be bettered, I don’t think. You couldn’t see it bettered anywhere, not even in Brazil. The moves they put together were fantastic”.
The Chairman of Forest agreed, saying it wouldn’t have made any difference who the opponents had been that night, no team in Europe would’ve stood a chance.”
The quality of the football was so good even Alan Green was impressed. He wrote on the BBC World Service
That was simply the best display of an exceptional season from Liverpool. Reporters are often accused, rightly, of being too glib using words like brilliant, fantastic, fabulous. Liverpool deserved all these adjectives tonight.
They were, after all, playing a quality side that had beaten them in the league just eleven days ago. “
Even Michel Platini was to give English football a positive review claiming Liverpool were “a continental team not an English one.” That was supposed to be a compliment although given Liverpool had won 4 European Cups during the previous 11 years it’s difficult to see how there was a better continental side around.
The last word is left to John Barnes who claimed in his autobiography it was “the best Liverpool performance I ever played in”. The BBC were inspired so much they showed a special highlights show the following night, in the days before wall-to-wall football on television.